»  National Review Online Diary

  March 2012

Under the influence     I guess I should apologize for not having made much of a showing in The Corner recently. Nor, for the eagle-eyed crew who pick through our print magazine's The Week section guessing which editor contributed which paragraphs, have I had anything to say in those pages.

The fact is, I have been under the influence of bendamustine. (Trade name Treanda; though that always looks to me like something I'd see on the name tag of a check-out girl at the local discount store. "That'll be $14.95." "Here you go." "Thank you, Sir. Have a nice day." "You too, Treanda." However, consulting the authority here, I see that "Treanda" does not register in the top 1,000 baby names.)

The nature of the influence is, that my IQ seems to have dropped about 20 points, and my life processes have slowed to a crawl. Was there really a time when I simultaneously plotted and wrote books, conducted major home repairs, kept up a busy journalistic schedule, paid attention to my wife and kids, and took frequent breaks for travel? It seems incredible. This last few weeks, by the time I've roused myself from bed, got through necessary ablutions, checked my email, and eaten a boiled egg, it's 10:30 pm and time to go back to bed.

The other main effect of bendamustine is to make everything taste like something else. That boiled egg tastes like a gob of lard. Bread tastes like low-grade candy; fish tastes like undercooked potatoes; bananas taste like wood; tea tastes like barium sulfate.

I'm not the least bit surprised to learn that "Bendamustine was developed in East Germany during the 1960s." Thanks, Walter.

Johnsoniana     What would a monthly diary be without some Johnsoniana?

On June 17, 1783, aged 73, Dr. Johnson suffered a "paralytick stroke" in the night. He recorded the event to his friend Mrs. Thrale as follows:

Thus I went to bed, and in a short time waked and sat up, as has been long my custom, when I felt a confusion and indistinctness in my head, which lasted, I suppose, about half a minute. I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse. The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good: I made them easily, and concluded myself to be unimpaired in my faculties.

I love that Johnsonian logic: "The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good." I feel the same way with my own temporarily (I hope!) diminished faculties: My thinking's not very good, but I know it's not. So long as that's the case I can look forward cheerfully to getting back to normal — writing more books, giving more talks, and scandalizing more liberals.

(Though not, apparently, poor Keith Olbermann, who's been fired from Current TV, whatever that is. I guess I'll just have to cherish my memories of having once been Keith's Worst Person in the World, like an old love affair.)

Event of the month?     In the long historical run, the main event of the month may prove to have been the defenestration of Bo Xilai ("Baw Shee-lye," more or less). Bo was the Chinese Communist Party boss of Chongqing, a huge city-region in the west of metropolitan China. There is a good character sketch of him here by veteran BBC foreign-affairs reporter John Simpson.

There is actually a sequence of events here, the March 15 cashiering of Mr. Bo being only the most prominent. Seven weeks prior to that, Bo's chief of police had made a visit to the nearest U.S. Consulate, apparently to ask for asylum. He left the consulate the following day, and is now in Beijing under detention, probably minus a few fingernails.

Three months prior to that a British businessman, Neil Heywood, died mysteriously in a Chongqing hotel room and was cremated without autopsy. The Chinese authorities said he had died from "excessive alcohol consumption," though he had no record of heavy drinking. Heywood was a close friend of the Bo family. Himself an alumnus of Harrow, a very prestigious English boy's boarding school (Winston Churchill, Andrew Stuttaford), Heywood had arranged for Bo's son to attend the school.

The deep story here is the lawlessness of China. Huge criminal networks, agencies of Party control, and major commercial corporations are locked in a macabre dance. Heywood ran a consultancy helping foreign firms establish contact with big Chinese players: Party bosses, plutocrats, and mafiosi. He knew a great deal about their connections. (He was a fluent Chinese-speaker.) You have to imagine situations like: Party boss X, married to wife Y in charge of a major corporation, whose brother Z is front man for one of the syndicates …

Bo's dismissal set off ructions all through China's power and business structures. There have been widespread rumors of a military coup attempt. For Old China Hands, it's all a trip down memory lane: in my case, to 1971 and the Lin Biao affair. I was newly arrived in the Far East, living in Hong Kong and hanging out with professional China watchers. As with the Bo incident, even the oldest of the Old China Hands couldn't figure out who was doing what to whom, and in fact the truth about Lin Biao is still unknown to this day.

Forty years on, China's affairs are way more complex, but no more fathomable. Underneath the present fuss is the tragedy of modern China: the utter failure of this great, talented nation to make any progress towards rational government.

Communism is a horrible blight on any nation, we all know that. The common perception is that communism is, in its later form, less of a blight in China than elsewhere, as it has at least permitted some everyday liberties.

I take the opposite view. Worse would have been better. Another ten years of Maoist lunacy followed by utter systemic collapse would have opened the possibility of rational government rising from the ruins. Instead we are just where we were forty years ago, gangster-despots chasing each other with knives through dark corridors of power. No settled institutions, no rules for succession, no public audit of government, no channels for redress of grievances, no independent judiciary, nothing but plutocrats, mafiosi, and Party princelings endlessly jostling for advantage while ordinary people try as best they can to avoid getting trampled by the feuding mastodons.

The dark thought comes: With all their other manifest talents and abilities, perhaps the Chinese just can't do government. They seem to be hopelessly, irredeemably bad at it. Perhaps gangster-despotism is the best they can rise to.

I remember the hopes that I and many others nursed at the time of the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989 — hopes that China was emerging from the darkness at last. Here we are nearly a quarter-century on, and things are, if anything, worse.

Speaking of Tiananmen …

A night at the opera     March 29th I roused myself from chemo stupor to go to the Metropolitan Opera for Verdi's Macbeth. It was a silly production, one of those modern-dress affairs, but the music made up for everything, and I was blessed with some very delightful company.

Macbeth was known in Verdi's time as the opera senza amore: "the opera without love interest." That tells you just how romantic the Romantic Age was. (Although, as Budden footnotes, the tag was a bit unfair: plenty of operas had no amore — Budden names three of Donizetti's. And, as my companion noted, there must have been some kind of emotional bond between Macbeth and his Mrs.)

What I want to know is, why Verdi didn't make a full-blown stand-and-deliver aria out of Macbeth's great "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech. English poetry has an atheist's prayer; why shouldn't opera have a nihilist's hymn?

Verdi in Tiananmen Square     Uh, what does Verdi's Macbeth have to do with the Tiananmen Square protests? Readers of that tremendous China-Tibet-Wall Street-Showbiz-Opera novel Fire from the Sun know the answer.

Here is my heroine in Tiananmen Square, May 1989 (Chapter 62):

"Sing more!" called out Norbu. Wang Jun was nowhere in sight, and no-one seemed to want to take the microphone from her. Margaret struggled to think of suitable songs. "O patria mia" from Aida came to mind, but was wrong for the occasion, Aida having lost hope of ever seeing her country again. Isabella's "Pensa alla patria" was fitting enough; but Margaret knew Isabella as a comic heroine even if her audience didn't, and the knowledge would give her performance the wrong color, she felt sure. At last she decided to try the patriotic chorus from Macbeth.
The nation betrayed
Weeping, cries out.
Comrades! we march
To save the oppressed.
The wrath of the skies
Shall fall on the tyrant;
For Heaven is weary
Of his dreadful crimes.
She got through the song without vocal mishap, but the applause was less ardent than for "Coraggio." This could hardly have been a musical judgment — of the tens of thousands in the Square, probably no more than a few dozen even knew the name Verdi. Perhaps she had lost their attention while trying to think of what song to give them. Or perhaps they had just had enough opera. Margaret stepped away, bowing. Well, she had given what she could give. That was enough.

The North Korean horrors     Our president went to take a look at North Korea. If he'd like some further insights into the place, here's a book recommendation.

A book review recommendation, actually — I have not yet read the book. The review is by Old Asia Hand par excellence Jonathan Mirsky in the March issue of Literary Review. Name of the book: Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.

The one man is Shin Dong-hyuk, who is of course Korean. Shin was not merely a camp inmate: he was born in a camp, where his parents and older brother were incarcerated because his uncles had escaped to South Korea. As the book says, quoted by Mirsky: "Shin had not been torn away from a civilized existence and forced to descend into hell. He was born and raised there. He accepted its values. He called it home."

Just the review makes grueling reading: heaven only knows what the book is like. (I shall soon find out.) The human horror that is North Korea tests the imagination.

And the band played on     Peeking forward into April, the centenary of the Titanic sinking is almost upon us.

This ages me. No, no, I don't remember the Titanic sinking — come on. I do, though, clearly remember the fiftieth anniversary, in 1962. I was in my penultimate year of high school, and just starting to take a serious interest in the large affairs of the world.

The warm-up seemed to have been going on for years. There was a Titanic book, which everyone had read, and a Titanic movie, which everyone had seen. Come the actual anniversary, there were survivors telling their tales on radio and TV. (Great flocks of them were still alive.)

My best friend had an elder brother who lived in London and affected the lifestyle of what later became known as a "young fogey" — old-fashioned styles of dress, manners, furniture, etc. I believe he actually owned a pair of spats. He was a major Titanic buff — had a lovely scale model of the ship in a glass case …

Good grief: Reminiscing about past events is idle enough, but reminiscing about the anniversaries of events? I need to get out more.

Misleading advice for foreigners     Yet further ahead, London is hosting the Summer Olympics this year. Let's hope the city's many vibrant multicultural communities can refrain from rioting for the duration.

With a lot of first-time foreign tourists expected, the game around London dinner-tables right now is "misleading advice to foreigners." This was a hardy perennial of the old New Statesman weekly competitions. Some of the winners are preserved on the internet, but I have a more complete set in an old book, from which:

The Monument commemorates the Great Fire of London: on reaching the top, your party is invited to take part in symbolic firefighting by urinating through the railings onto the heads of the busy fish porters below, who wear bowler hats for protection; they will respond with cheerful waves and merry shouts in their colourful language.

I'm surprised there isn't a New York equivalent. How about:

Subway token booth clerks are always glad to engage in conversation with patrons on matters of general interest …

Math Corner.     A reader:

I have heard it said and seen it but I can't get my head around the math. My math brain went critical with trig.

If you stop forty people at random, you have an almost 50-50 chance that two will have the same birthday, not years. With 366 possible birthdays, how is this possible?

[Me] Easy. You stop a guy. You ask his birthday. It is whatever it is.

You stop guy number 2. You ask his birthday. The chance it is different from the first guy's is 365/366.

You stop guy number 3. You ask his birthday. The chance it is different from the first guy's and also different from the second guy's is 364/366.

You stop guy number 4. You ask his birthday. The chance it is different from the birthdays of all three previous guys is 363/366.

Keep going …

You stop guy number N. You ask his birthday. The chance it is different from the birthdays of all N − 1 previous guys is (367 − N)/366.

Now, if the chance of A being the case is p, and the chance of B being the case is q, and the chance of C being the case is r, and so on, then the chance of A and B and C and … all being the case is p × q × r × … (So long as A, B, C, … are independent events, which in this case they are.)

So the chance of all N birthdays being different is 365/366 × 364/366 × 363/366 × … × (367 − N)/366.

For N = 2 to 40, the actual values of this expression, to three decimal places, are as follows:  0.997, 0.992, 0.984, 0.973, 0.960, 0.944, 0.926, 0.906, 0.883, 0.859, 0.833, 0.806, 0.777, 0.748, 0.717, 0.686, 0.654, 0.622, 0.589, 0.557, 0.525, 0.494, 0.463, 0.432, 0.403, 0.374, 0.347, 0.320, 0.295, 0.271, 0.248, 0.226, 0.206, 0.187, 0.169, 0.152, 0.137, 0.123, and 0.109.

So in fact the chance that all the birthdays are different after you've stopped 40 people is close to one in ten. To put it the other way round, the chance that at least two of the birthdays are the same is almost 90 percent.

The 50-50 point actually falls between N = 22 and N = 23.

(The math needs tweaking there to account for the fact that one particular birthday — February 29, of course — does not occur one time in 366, but only one time in 1,461. As math textbooks say, I leave that as an exercise for the reader. The general principle is plain enough.)

Now a book recommendation. If you like exploring math and feel up to 248 pages of exceptionally lucid exposition, Avner Ash and Robert Gross's Elliptic Tales is just the ticket. It's basically an exposition of the cumbersomely-named Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture, one of the great unsolved problems in math, but along the way you learn a lot of good stuff about algebra, number theory, and analysis. Strongly recommended.